June 15, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Talk about the rooms where things happen. Princeton Festival presented two one-act operas this past weekend, each taking place in a single room, but the amount of action in that one space captivated the audience in the Festival’s new home at Morven Museum & Gardens.

Princeton Festival has always included opera as part of its month-long season of activities, and this year, there are two presentations — a double bill of two shorter operas and a full-length work by English composer Benjamin Britten. What has changed is the venue for these events; rather than being inside a large hall, the Festival constructed a 500-seat state-of-the-art performance tent at Morven Museum & Garden to create a “performing arts extravaganza.” With the singers, orchestra pit, and audience all under one tent, this is a new experience for Princeton Festival attendees.

The Festival’s opera series opened this past Saturday night with a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario and Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsburg, and although these two comedic operas may seem to be unrelated, they were tied together by plotlines involving very strong and influential personalities, both fictional and real. Mozart’s 1786 Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) has been described as a parody on the vanity of singers who argue over just about everything, but mainly money. This comic singspiel, with as much spoken dialog as sung music, may have only contained four arias, but the musical material was as technically complex as Mozart’s more monumental works.

Featuring only five characters (one of which was a speaking role), The Impresario took place in a fictional theatrical office in Vienna, where a hapless opera producer struggled with a conniving stage manager, underhanded banker, diva well past her prime and scheming up-and-coming singer over the potential success of a new opera. Princeton Festival’s production, which opened last Friday night (with additional performances the following Sunday and this coming week), was presented in English, accompanied by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra led by Music Director Rossen Milanov. more

June 8, 2022

By Nancy Plum 

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) wrapped up its 2021-22 Richardson Auditorium concert series with a program ranging from sublime to sprightly and highlighting three members of the Orchestra as soloists. Associate concertmaster and violinist Brennan Sweet, assistant principal violist Elzbieta Weyman, and assistant principal flute Kathleen Nester were featured in works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Vivaldi, with performances that demonstrated their own soloistic talents and presented rarely-heard sides of these composers. Led by NJSO Music Director Xian Zhang, the musicians of New Jersey Symphony found the perfect musical vehicle to close the season and launch summer.

Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium began with a nimble and humorous opera overture by a youthful Gioachino Rossini. Even at a young age, Rossini knew how to create an operatic showstopper, and his 1813 “Overture” to L’Italiana in Algeri contained all the elements necessary to energize a 19th-century audience. One of Rossini’s compositional signatures was a slowly rising crescendo to a full orchestral sound, and Zhang led the New Jersey Symphony well through these dynamic swells while allowing teasing wind solos to emerge from the texture. Like many opera overtures of this time period, Rossini’s “Overture” took off in tempo after a graceful start. Wind solos conveyed saucy melodic themes, including from oboist Robert Ingliss, clarinetist Andrew Lamy, and flutist Bart Feller. The three wind soloists had quick lines to maneuver, all of which were well executed.  more

May 25, 2022

“SHREK THE MUSICAL”: Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players have presented “Shrek The Musical.” Directed by Eliyana Abraham and Gabbie Bourla, it played May 20-22 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Above, from left, Princess Fiona (Ann Webb) is rescued by unlikely friends Shrek (Rafael Collado) and Donkey (Tobi Fadugba). (Photo by Emily Yang)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Theatre Intime and Princeton University Players have collaborated to present Shrek The Musical. The show entertained an enthusiastic mixed-age audience, which filled the Hamilton Murray Theater on opening night.

The 2008 Broadway musical’s often witty book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire, who adapts the screenplays of the popular DreamWorks film series, which is based on William Steig’s 1990 picture book. The music — which incorporates elements of pop, R&B, and traditional musical theater — is by Jeanine Tesori. The show interpolates “I’m a Believer,” which is written by Neil Diamond.

This production is smoothly directed by Eliyana Abraham and Gabbie Bourla. They let the audience be a part of the action, by reserving a row of seats through which the cast often moves.

The crisp musical direction is by Giao Vu Dinh, assisted by Sam Melton and Chloe Webster. The band opens the show with a brief “Overture,” consisting of a series of triumphal chords followed by a bouncy march.

“The wry “Big, Bright, Beautiful World” shows the childhood experiences of Shrek (played by Rafael Collado) and Fiona (Ann Webb). At age 7, Shrek is sent to live on his own having been warned by his parents (played by Aria Buchanan and Matt Gancayco) that he will be shunned for his looks. Eventually he finds a swamp, where he is content to live alone.

Fiona blithely re-titles the show Fiona The Musical, and tells her story. As a child she is shut in a tower by her parents, King Harold (Andrew Duke) and Queen Lillian (Jacquelynn Lin), to await Prince Charming. more

May 18, 2022

“GROUP!”: Performances are underway for “Group!” Directed by Maria Patrice Amon, the musical runs through May 22 at Passage Theatre. Above, from left: Jessica (Liz Barnett) facilitates a court-ordered anti-addiction group therapy program, but her methods (such as passing around a soccer ball on which she tapes impractical ideas) scarcely help the participants, including Sandra (Nicole Stacie), Ceci (Tamara Rodriguez), and Everly (Deja Fields). (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Passage Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Group! By turns poignant and wry, the new musical portrays six women who meet at group therapy session to battle addiction.

Five of the women attend the program because of a court order. The sixth, Jessica, is the well-meaning but ill-equipped facilitator who moderates the sessions. Although Jessica appears to have little in common with the women she is trying to help, all of them are expected to succeed by a system that hinders their ability to do so.

Group! tells an original story set in present-day Trenton. The book is by Julia B. Rosenblatt; the dialogue segues seamlessly into Eloise Govedare’s lyrics. Composer Aleksandra M. Weil draws on a variety of musical styles, but uses an energetic pop rock sound to anchor the score.

Upon entering the theater we immediately see scenic designer Kayla Arrell’s set. Most of the action takes place in a room with (artfully) drab walls and uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs. A door marked “exit” is prominent, letting us wonder whether these women will successfully exit the therapy program. The walls are decorated with posters on which are written platitudes such as “change,” and “believe and succeed.”

Above the therapy room are three windows representing apartments. Moments that use that upper level — in which we see the participants’ lives away from the sessions — have some particularly effective and dramatic lighting by Alex Mannix. more

May 11, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra closed the 2021-22 season this past weekend with a classical violinist who is making his mark worldwide. Led by PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov, the Orchestra and guest violinist Stefan Jackiw performed a lesser-known and somewhat underrated 20th-century concerto, bracketed by a very contemporary work and a symphonic classic.

American violinist Jackiw began playing violin at age 4, eventually earning concurrent degrees from Harvard University and New England Conservatory of Music. In Saturday night’s performance (the concert was repeated Sunday afternoon), Jackiw showed himself from the opening measures of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major to be a very physical player, leaning into solo lines with a youthful and fresh sound. Korngold’s Concerto (nicknamed the Hollywood Concerto when it first premiered) was definitely cinematic, full of lush music designed to pull at listeners’ emotions. Korngold’s colorful orchestration provided numerous solo opportunities for the wind and brass players, including oboist Lillian Copeland and hornist Gabrielle Pho.

The solo violin part in Korngold’s Concerto was continuous, and Jackiw showed impassioned violin playing throughout the piece. In the second movement “romance,” he was joined in an elegant duet by English horn player Gilles Cheng, with the solo line well complemented by flutists Armir Farsi and Mary Schmidt. Jackiw’s solo line immediately took off in the third movement “finale,” for which Korngold borrowed heavily from his own film scores. The principal theme of this song-like movement sounded as though it should be familiar, but as it was passed around among the players, the tune was jazzed up and altered (especially by the brass), leading to a spirited conclusion to the Concerto. more

“RIDE THE CYCLONE”: Performances are underway for “Ride the Cyclone.” Produced by McCarter Theatre and Arena Stage, and directed by McCarter’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, the musical runs through May 29 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Above, from left, are Constance (Princess Sasha Victomé), Noel (Nick Martinez), Ocean (Katerina McCrimmon), Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox), Ricky (yannick-robin eike), and Mischa (Eli Mayer). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In the musical Ride the Cyclone, six teenagers are killed in an accident while riding the titular amusement park ride. In an otherworldly warehouse they meet The Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fortune teller that is about to be destroyed by a bass-playing rat who is chewing on his power cord.  The fortune teller offers to send one of the teenagers back from the dead, instigating a literal fight for their lives.

It must have been entertaining to listen to early pitches for the show, whose book, music, and lyrics are by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond. But within the eccentric, morbid plot are engaging, uplifting character arcs, conveyed by songs that are by turns eerie and exuberant. Ride the Cyclone is both offbeat and upbeat.

Ride the Cyclone is being presented at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre (in a co-production by McCarter and Arena Stage). In a program note, Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen — who directs the production — recalls a quote from Our Town: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it … every minute?”

Both Our Town and Ride the Cyclone acknowledge the fragility of life; lyrics in the song “Jawbreaker/Sugarcloud” echo the line quoted by Rasmussen. Karnak fulfills a role similar to that of Our Town’s Stage Manager: an emcee to guide the characters.

Any similarity between the two shows generally ends there. In Wilder’s play, the dead characters are confined to chairs. In the musical, the characters sing, dance, and even spin in midair. Our Town usually is performed with no scenery and few props. Ride the Cyclone rejects this aesthetic, reveling in lavish production elements. more

May 4, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Sibling musical prodigies can be found throughout history — brother and sister Mozart, the Haydn brothers, and a large family of Bachs — but there is nothing in classical music today quite like the Kanneh-Masons. Raised in Nottingham, England, the seven brothers and sisters of the Kanneh-Mason family each play violin, piano, and/or cello, all at a very high level. They appear professionally both individually and collectively, have won numerous awards, and are especially known for their livestreams of innovative arrangements and performances.

Two members of this acclaimed family came to Richardson Auditorium last Wednesday night as the last performance of Princeton University Concerts’ 2021-22 season. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, accompanied by his sister, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, played a program of four 19th and 20th-century sonatas for cello and piano, none of which were lightweight pieces and all of which showed that these two siblings have musical skills way beyond their years.

Cellist Sheku has already made history in the United Kingdom as the first cellist in history to reach the U.K. Album Chart Top 10. His popularity as a musician was instantaneous from his performance at the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and he is now in demand as a soloist throughout the world. Pianist Isata has won her own share of awards, drawing on her training at London’s Royal Academy of Music and forging her own path as a piano soloist.

Sheku and Isata mesmerized the audience at Richardson last week with the chamber music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Dmitri Shostakovich, Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten. One of Sheku’s most striking characteristics as a performer is his range of facial expressions while playing, showing that this young artist pours emotion into every note. Opening with Beethoven’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, No. 4 in C Major, the Kanneh-Masons showed consistent expressive intensity, with clarity in the accompaniment and elegant melodic lines from the cello. The first movement “andante” introduction included a graceful dialog between cello and piano, with Isata playing delicately light trills with a flowing right hand.  more

“THE ART OF PLEASING PRINCES”: The Princeton University Players have presented a staged reading of “The Art of Pleasing Princes,” performed April 28-30 at the Whitman Theater. Directed by Solomon Bergquist, the new musical takes place in a fantasy kingdom that is beset by court intrigue and labyrinthine conspiracies.Above, from left, are Maddox (Alex Conboy), Rowan (Lana Gaige), Jason (Andrew Matos), Louis (Delaney Rose), and Maya (Miel Escamilla). (Photo by Elliot Lee)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Princeton University Players, a student-run organization whose website describes it as “Princeton’s home for musical theater,” has presented a staged reading of a new, student-written show, The Art of Pleasing Princes, at Whitman College’s Class of 1970 Theater this past weekend.

With a book and lyrics by Mel Hornyak and Elliot Valentine Lee, and music by Lee, the musical is set in a pseudohistorical fantasy kingdom — but with a viewpoint and aesthetic that are resolutely contemporary. The show subverts tropes of the fantasy genre — and to an extent, musical theater.

A rogue prince leads an unlikely group of co-conspirators in a plot to assassinate his estranged, tyrannical father. Along the way, we discover the protagonists’ secret ambitions and forbidden relationships.

The performance is classified as a staged reading, as the performers are permitted to use scripts. However, the show has the choreography, costumes, and props of a full production.

The Art of Pleasing Princes opens with a recognizable image. The king’s favorite guard, Jason Bartok (infused with affable sincerity by Andrew Matos) is kneeling at the feet of the monarch’s daughter, princess Maya Astor (Miel Escamilla), proposing marriage to her. The tableau will be seen again later, with a twist.

The opening number (“Your Day in Court”) begins with a waltz that is artfully exaggerated in its delicacy. The courtiers profess excitement at the (presumably) impending royal wedding, and set the too-perfect scene: “Every man has his duties; every servant his place; every lady her suitors … our lives our perfect, charmed.”

Clearly, this equilibrium is just waiting to be upended. Indeed, as the musical language gradually sheds the pastiche, the lyrics describe the scene as a “careful charade.” The ensemble sings of the ruthless politics at court, “You won’t know if you’ve made a mistake here, ‘til you’re the only one kept from the ball.” more

April 27, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Last Thursday night’s concert by the Tetzlaff String Quartet in Richardson Auditorium was a new beginning on several levels. Not only was this a reschedule of Tetzlaff’s premiere performance on the University Concerts series from two years ago, but it was also the Quartet’s first appearance in the United States in five years. Violinists Christian Tetzlaff and Elisabeth Kufferath, violist Hanna Weinmeister, and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff brought a program of Haydn, Berg, and Schubert to Princeton last week, demonstrating a unique approach to chamber music and why the ensemble is one of the most popular quartets worldwide.

Led by first violinist Christian Tetzlaff, the Tetzlaff Quartet showed a consistently amazing ability to build drama in a piece through dynamics — often collectively bringing the ensemble sound down to almost nothing to disclose a side of the piece not otherwise heard. Opening with Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, the Tetzlaff musicians played phrase repetitions delicately and allowed repeated notes to gracefully and stylistically taper away. Christian Tetzlaff well maneuvered the technically demanding first violin part, which Haydn had composed for the particularly gifted concertmaster of his court orchestra. 

Throughout Quartet No. 5, the Tetzlaff players well captured the nickname of this set of pieces as the “Sun” quartets, but also showed that the sun can be dark and obscure as well. Especially in the second movement “Minuet-Trio,” sequential passages were always played with direction, and the musicians well captured Haydn’s folk-like and outdoorsy atmosphere in the “Trio.” First violinist Tetzlaff remained the musical leader throughout the work, executing especially complex and heavily ornamented passages, but always with the solid support of the other three players.  more

“THE LARAMIE PROJECT”: Theatre Intime has staged “The Laramie Project,” presented April 15-24 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Ethan Luk, the play explores the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, as well as interviewees’ reactions to the idea of being depicted in a docudrama. Above, from left, are cast members Luc Maurer, Alexis Maze, Sabina Jafri, Rilla McKeegan, Ay Marsh, Arthur Yan, and Matthew Shih. (Photo by Rowen Gesue)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In October 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten and left to die near Laramie. Rescuers took him to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where he died of his injuries six days later.

Writing about Shepard’s attackers, a history.com entry notes, “To avoid a death sentence, Russell Henderson pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder in April 1999 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Later that year, Aaron McKinney attempted to use a “gay panic” defense at his own trial, claiming that Shepard’s advances disgusted him.” Both Henderson and McKinney are serving life sentences.

The history.com article adds, “Matthew Shepard’s death sparked national outrage and renewed calls for extending hate crime laws to cover violence based on a person’s sexual orientation.”

In 2000 the New York City-based Tectonic Theater Project presented The Laramie Project — first at Denver’s Ricketson Theatre, then off-Broadway at the Union Square Theatre. Two years later the play was presented in Laramie.

Written by Moisés Kaufman in collaboration with members of the theater company, the docudrama explores the events and viewpoints surrounding Shepard’s death. We learn that Tectonic members arrived in Laramie in November 1998, a month after the event. Members of the theater company interviewed Laramie residents, and all of the dialogue is derived from those conversations, as well as Tectonic members’ journal entries. Published news reports also are excerpted.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented The Laramie Project. In a program note, director Ethan Luk admits to having had doubts about the play’s relevance: “How does The Laramie Project speak to an audience more than 20 years after its premiere?” For the director, an answer can be found in events such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and the Brooklyn subway shooting: “Violence and injustice, both in explicit and implicit forms, still run rampant … perhaps that is why we find ourselves in front of the mirror time after time.” more

April 20, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Each year, the Princeton University Orchestra designs its final concert of the season as both a tribute to former Orchestra percussionist Stuart Mindlin and a send-off to the ensemble’s graduating seniors. Over the years, these performances have often presented a single massive orchestral work, but as with many musical events these past months, things are a little different. Led by conductor Michael Pratt, the University Orchestra performed four pieces which may have looked as though they had little in common but were in fact interconnected through their themes of common struggles against tyranny, racism, and intolerance toward diverse backgrounds. The four works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Carlos Chavez, William Grant Still and Leonard Bernstein spoke to both liberty and loss, as well as hope and love, with messages the graduating seniors can take with them as they launch their new lives outside the University.

The Orchestra opened Friday night’s concert at Richardson Auditorium (the performance was repeated Saturday night) with a classic well-known to the ensemble. Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Opus 72a was intended for an 1806 production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. In a single movement, this work travels from the despair of the prisoner Florestan to energetic fire and finally to victory through Beethoven’s trademark symphonic joy. From the solid opening chords, the Orchestra was always responsive to Pratt’s musical leadership, with the drama of the music building slowly through the introductory passages. Flutist Christine Deng’s chipper playing aided in a smooth transition to the overture’s familiar themes, with a trio of trombones and pair of trumpets adding subtle brass color, as well as a dramatic offstage trumpet. Dynamic swells were well-executed, and drama was maintained through effective sforzandi and the precise playing of timpanist Elijah Shina. Flutist Deng and oboist Jeremy Chen were paired in expressive musical passages, and the Orchestra was effective in creating a fast and furious musical swirl to the closing coda. more

April 6, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Chamber Choir returned to live performance last Saturday night making a statement. Led by conductor Gabriel Crouch, the 48-voice chorus presented a program originally scheduled for April 2020, but which was just as profound today, both in perseverance of the singers and the creativity the canceled concert generated during the University’s shutdowns. Past and present came together in the Chamber Choir’s concert at Richardson Auditorium as the choristers emerged from the pandemic to find even more meaning in the works of Francis Poulenc and Mary Lou Williams. As a further acknowledgement of current times, the Chamber Choir presented this performance in collaboration with “02.24.2022,” a student-driven initiative supporting students on campus affected by the war in Ukraine and raising funds to provide local currency to refugees. 

Princeton University graduate Allison Spann is no stranger to University musical ensembles; her compositions have been played on campus before. Having lost a chunk of her senior year to the spring 2020 shutdown, Spann took the opportunity to create a work for the Chamber Choir which explored the connections between Poulenc’s Figure Humaine and Williams’ St. Martin de Porres, honoring both composers and their pursuit of divine liberation through music.

Spann commanded the stage herself for the Chamber Choir’s performance of her piece Before the light is gone. The Choir’s presentation of Spann’s work had the atmosphere of a jazz club, with Spann singing the soprano solo accompanied by the expert jazz piano accompaniment of Cherry Ge and Phillip Taylor. Spann’s work is mostly for solo voice (representing liberty, freedom or earth), with reaffirmation of text by the chorus (as mankind). Following a recited opening verse, Spann reached effectively into her upper register with a scatt singing effect, soaring above smooth homophonic chords sung by the Chamber Choir. An octet singing from the front of the stage showed Spann’s skill at writing music for close harmonies, with tricky dissonances well-handled and all singers conveying Spann’s wish to “pave the way for hope through rest, generosity, and compassion.”  more

AUDRA MCDONALD: National Medal of Arts winner Audra McDonald (above) performed April 2 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, accompanied by Andy Einhorn. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Award-winning singer and actor Audra McDonald performed at McCarter this past Saturday night. The concert, which played to a packed Matthews Theatre, featured a selection of Broadway standards. The evening was by turns uplifting and introspective. McDonald’s range and stellar vocal technique, and her respect and passion for material on which she was determined to make her own, all were on display.

In addition to six Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards, and an Emmy, McDonald has received a National Medal of Arts. Her numerous stage credits include Ragtime and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The Juilliard-trained soprano’s opera credits include Houston Grand Opera and Los Angeles Opera. Screen credits include the HBO series The Gilded Age, as well as the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

McDonald was accompanied by Broadway music director and conductor Andy Einhorn. Multiple songs heard in the concert appear on McDonald’s 2018 album Sing Happy, for which Einhorn conducted the New York Philharmonic.

Einhorn struck one key on the piano, which was a sufficient introduction for McDonald to launch into the stirring opening number, “I Am What I Am.” Early in the song Einhorn’s accompaniment was comparatively spare; as McDonald’s impassioned performance grew in speed and intensity, Einhorn’s accompaniment grew more elaborate. more

March 30, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Music has always been considered a “universal” language, traversing worldwide cultures and geography. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra has taken this concept to a new level by creating an international ensemble of 45 instrumentalists from 20 countries to share exceptional experiences in classical music, and the world-renowned ensemble brought one of these experiences to Richardson Auditorium last Thursday night as part of Princeton University Concerts. Led by guest pianist and Mozart expert Mitsuko Uchida, the Mahler Orchestra drew a full house to Richardson for a program of piano and orchestral music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Henry Purcell.  

Conducting piano concerti from the keyboard is a musical return to how it used to be done; Mozart composed many of his concerti for his own performance, both playing and leading an ensemble. In Thursday night’s performance, Uchida’s rapport with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was immediate, with her conducting gestures from the keyboard always conveying an uplifting spirit and joy. Uchida is especially well known for her interpretation of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven; having been raised in Vienna, she gave her first recital at the age of 14 and has channeled the Viennese powerhouse composers ever since.  

Uchida and the Mahler Orchestra began the concert with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, a work composed at the same time as Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. This concerto contained much of the same elegant flavor and melodic sensitivity as Figaro, opening with a courtly orchestral introduction. Mozart replaced the customary oboes with clarinets in this work to create a darker color, but under Uchida’s guidance, the Orchestra generated its own musical charm while playing with a rich instrumental sound. 

The overriding strength of the combination of Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was the impeccable timings between the two artistic partners. As both conductor and soloist, Uchida was responsible for seamlessly weaving the solo keyboard part into the orchestral fabric. While she was expertly playing the solo lines, concertmaster Mark Steinberg fluidly took over guiding the ensemble in supporting the soloist. Uchida’s solo phrases led effortlessly into the orchestral passages, with cadenzas especially exact so she could effortlessly switch to the conducting role.  more

March 23, 2022

By Nancy Plum

It is difficult enough to present a professional opera production in the best of times, but over the past two years, it must have seemed almost impossible. Opera companies nationwide struggled to succeed in a medium considered a coronavirus “superspreader,” and regional companies in particular have been putting their artistic toes in the water very slowly these days. Boheme Opera NJ, which has been presenting opera in the area for the past 33 years, took a big leap back into the performance arena this past weekend with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic Rigoletto at the Patriots Theater at Trenton’s War Memorial. Led by conductor Joseph Pucciatti, Boheme Opera NJ’s fully-staged and supertitled production brought together a talented cast of singers and instrumentalists, accompanied by innovative digital sets and well-paced music.

As popular as Rigoletto is today, the plot of Verdi’s 1851 opera was considered surprisingly shocking in its time. Based on a Victor Hugo play and with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, Rigoletto had a storyline perceived as making fun of royalty. Verdi moved the story’s location to Italy and reduced the protagonist in rank to duke, thus appeasing the Naples censors to which he was required to submit the libretto.

Celebrating more than 30 years of opera production, Boheme Opera NJ was riding a wave of artistic growth in 2020, when this production was originally scheduled, and the company bravely moved the performance site to Patriots Theater. A two-year hiatus on live opera performance upended the company’s upward momentum, yet this past weekend’s performances provided an opportunity for “spring reawakenings.” Friday night’s production (repeated Sunday afternoon) featured six singers making Boheme Opera debuts and nine singers performing their assigned roles for the first time.

Rigoletto fit well into a 19th-century formula in which the tenor is the romantic lead and the soprano his leading lady, with a villainous bass lurking in the background. A baritone hunchback in Rigoletto changed the formula slightly, with Verdi adding his trademark unforgettable melodies into the musical mix. Verdi operas also often have their own signature features, such as a show-stopping coloratura soprano aria and poignant father-daughter conflict. Boheme Opera’s production featured solid singing throughout, but much of the evening belonged to Robert Balonek singing the title role. As Rigoletto, Balonek was able to scurry through crowd scenes with elastic physicality as well as express parental tenderness toward his daughter Gilda. He was alternately sprightly, animated, and conniving, with a solid voice carrying well into the house. Balonek showed particularly sensitive dynamics in an Act I soliloquy, while both scheming with the professional assassin Sparafucile and offering protective advice to Gilda.  more

“ON BECKETT”: McCarter Theatre Center presented “On Beckett” on March 18. Created, directed and performed by Bill Irwin, the show played at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Above: Irwin considers, among other questions, whether the “Waiting for Godot” playwright’s work is “natural clown territory.” (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Award-winning actor, writer, director, and clown Bill Irwin presented On Beckett at McCarter on March 18. The entertaining monologue excerpts passages from the author and playwright’s writings, interspersed with comedy routines and affable, thoughtful commentary. Early in the evening Irwin poses an overarching rhetorical question: “Is Samuel Beckett’s writing natural clown territory?”

On Beckett is the result, and culmination, of Irwin’s extensive experience performing Beckett’s works. He has acted in multiple productions of Waiting for Godot, including the 2009 Broadway production; and he performed in American Conservatory Theater’s 2012 production of Endgame.

“Mine is an actor’s relationship to Beckett’s language; but it’s also a clown’s relationship,” Irwin explains to this writer in an interview for (the March 16 edition of) Town Topics. “I’m hoping to welcome you in, and in doing so, re-welcome myself back in, because I am forever rediscovering this writing — the wit in it.”

On Beckett premiered at Irish Repertory Theatre in 2018, following development at ACT. The McCarter presentation is produced by Octopus Theatricals, in partnership with the Lewis Center for the Arts.

Irwin’s other original stage works include The Regard of Flight, The Happiness Lecture, and Old Hats. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor for his performances in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Fool Moon (the latter is created by Irwin and David Shiner). Television credits include Elmo’s World; film credits include Rachel Getting Married and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. more

March 16, 2022

By Nancy Plum

The World War II account of Anne Frank, with its immortal story of hope amid a harsh reality, seems particularly timely in these days of current events. As a result, Princeton Pro Musica may find that its presentation this past weekend of a choral setting of Anne Frank’s diary has more impact now than its original performance date two years ago, especially as the chorus returns to live performance.  Originally scheduled for the spring of 2020 to mark the 75thanniversary of the end of World War II, British composer James Whitbourn’s oratorio Annelies not only honors the life and legacy of Anne Frank but also finds parallels with current fears and anxiety of uncertain realities. 

Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “It seems like years since Sunday morning. So much has happened. It’s as if the whole world had suddenly turned upside down.” Princeton Pro Musica Artistic Director Ryan James Brandau referenced these words when welcoming the audience back to a live Pro Musica performance after a two-year hiatus. With music by Whitbourn and a libretto by author Melanie Challenger, Annelies is a “musical portraiture” for chorus, orchestra, and soprano soloist providing a snapshot of Frank’s life. Joining Pro Musica and the accompanying orchestra last Sunday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium was Princeton graduate and operatic soprano Lily Arbisser. 

The voice of Anne Frank was not confined to the soprano voice, but could be heard throughout the piece from orchestra, chorus, and soloist. Whitbourn incorporated musical references to the sights and sounds of 1940s Amsterdam into the work, beginning with an “Introit” capturing bells and a vibrant city atmosphere. In this opening movement, Arbisser sang as a cantor while the women of Pro Musica presented a subtle unison line. Whitbourn used choral monophony and unharmonized wordless lines sung by the chorus as a vehicle for certain words of the text, and Pro Musica’s presentation of these passages in the opening movement set well a sense of foreboding for what was to come. more

March 9, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra coupled a contemporary symphonic work with a beloved 19th-century Czech composer this past weekend with a pair of performances in Richardson Auditorium on the campus of Princeton University. Led by PSO Music Director Rossen Milanov, the ensemble presented a piece recently premiered, as well as works by Antonín Dvorak and Igor Stravinsky, both of whom made their homes in the United States at some point. Joining the Orchestra in these “Edward T. Cone” performances was magnetic Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández.

Saturday night’s concert (the performance was repeated Sunday afternoon) opened with the one-movement Amer’ican of Michigan-born composer James Lee III. Composed in 2019, Amer’ican was inspired by Dvorak’s New World Symphony, along with 18th-century artwork of Indigenous Americans. Lee’s piece began serenely, with Scott Kemsley’s solo flute introducing an orchestral palette in which the instruments seemed to be on their own. The winds, especially a pair of clarinets, were effective in executing swirling passages, with a varied percussion section providing musical effects evoking Americana. Flutists Kemsley and Mary Schmidt carried much of the melodic material in the work, with elegant solos provided by other winds and brass, including oboist Gilles Cheng and trombone player Carlos Jiménez Fernández. Lee was inspired by Dvorak when writing this piece, and shades of the Czech composer could be heard in the solo clarinet lines, gracefully played by Andy Cho. Conductor Milanov well-handled the work’s transitions between lyricism and driving rhythms. 

Prize-winning cellist Pablo Ferrández has been acclaimed as being a captivating performer, complete with technique, spirit and expressivity. Ferrández was featured in Dvorak’s 1895 Cello Concerto in B Minor, written while the composer was living in the United States, and subsequently revised in response to the death of a family member.  more

March 2, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton University Orchestra returned to the Richardson Auditorium stage last week with a concert featuring both guest conductors and soloist winners of the University Orchestra Concerto Competition. The performance Friday night (the concert was repeated Saturday night) showed convincingly the impact of University Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt’s long tenure with the Orchestra and the depth of the University music program.

Soprano Marley Jacobson, a University senior who had a leading role in last season’s  “pandemic” virtual opera La Calisto, led off the evening with a performance of a concert aria by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart composed the orchestrally accompanied “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!” for soprano voice and oboe obbligato for his sister-in-law and as an interpolation into another composer’s opera in which she was performing.

Orchestra conductor Michael Pratt led the ensemble in this work, demonstrating well-blended winds and horns, with an especially elegant oboe solo by Vedrana Ivezic. Jacobson sang Mozart’s concert aria of plaintiveness and emotional confusion with the lyrical poise and vocal self-assuredness of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. Ivezic’s contrasting oboe solo line was equally vocal in character, and the two instruments together were often delicately answered by pizzicato playing from the lower strings. From a 21st-century viewpoint, Mozart seemed to like torturing sopranos with huge intervallic skips, and Jacobson was well prepared for the technical challenges of this piece.

The classical music tradition of Armenia has been represented for the past 100 years by composer Aram Khachaturian. Originally intending to become a biologist, Khachaturian turned instead to music and composed works capturing the exotic colors and rhythms of the region, as well as the Mugham melodic themes which fascinated him as a child. Khachaturian composed the Adagio pas de deux as part of his 1956 ballet Spartacus, and the movement contained some of the most memorable melodies in the entire ballet. Conducting this piece in Friday night’s concert was University senior Montagu James, also a violinist and composer who has had several works commissioned by Princeton University Sinfonia.   more

February 23, 2022

“THE OK TRENTON PROJECT”: Performances are underway for “The OK Trenton Project.” Written by David Lee White, Richard Bradford, and members of the OK Trenton Ensemble; and directed by Passage’s Artistic Director C. Ryanne Domingues, the play runs through February 27 at Passage Theatre. Above, from left, are Richard Bradford, Wendi Smith, Kevin Bergen, Carmen Castillo (seated), and Molly Casey Chapman. (Photo by Jeff Stewart)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In August 2017 the Associated Press ran an article with the headline, “Not OK? Sculpture of hand gesture moved over gang worries.” The subject of the piece was Helping Hands, a metal sculpture of a hand making the “OK” sign, which was installed on a city-owned vacant lot on the corner of Trenton’s Perry and Montgomery streets.

Helping Hands was created by students (ages 12 to 15) from Camp Mercer, a summer camp operated by HomeFront, a nonprofit group. The sculpture was crafted in collaboration with artist Eric Schultz of Grounds For Sculpture, along with Trenton-based community development organization Isles, Inc.

The AP article notes that the students chose the “OK” sign “because they felt the peace sign was overused.” After the mayor’s office received anonymous complaints that Helping Hands resembled a gang symbol, the sculpture was removed from city property.

The controversy surrounding the removal of  the sculpture — and reactions to other works of art — is explored in The OK Trenton Project, a new play that is being presented by Passage Theatre. The docudrama was developed through Passage’s PlayLab program, over a period of four years.

This iteration of The OK Trenton Project marks the first full mainstage production of  “Trenton Makes,” a season that will feature plays about the city. “Both true and fictional, each piece highlights the capital city’s triumphs and challenges while celebrating its unique community,” promises a promotional email from Passage. more

By Nancy Plum

With a 22-appearance history of performing with Princeton University Concerts, the Takács Quartet has made a home at Richardson Auditorium and has become a good friend of the series. The four members of the string ensemble — violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Richard O’Neill, and cellist András Fejér — returned to Richardson Auditorium last week after a nearly two-year hiatus performing in the area for an eclectic program featuring music for string quartet and an instrument rarely heard in Princeton. Joining the ensemble for last Thursday night’s concert celebrating the series’ return to live performance was bandoneón and accordina virtuoso Julien Labro, and the five musicians together created an impressive evening of innovative classical music.

Born in France, Labro has brought music for the Argentine bandoneón to the forefront of the classical and jazz arenas. Most often heard in tango ensembles, the bandoneón creates its sound by pulling and pushing actions forcing air through bellows as the player routes air through reeds by pressing buttons on either side of the instrument. Labro has been applauded for his brilliant technique and imaginative arrangements, several of which he presented with the Takács Quartet. He connected with American composer Bryce Dessner when performing on Dessner’s score to the film The Two Popes, and when composer and performer were further introduced to the Takács Quartet, the seed for an imaginative commission was planted. Dessner’s Circles, performed by Labro and the Takács Quartet, interweaved rhythms and polyphonies of all five instruments, with a great deal of free expression from all the musicians.

Dessner’s Circles was co-commissioned by Princeton University Concerts and the consortium Music Accord, of which University Concerts is a member. The work began with the bandoneón contrasted with a chipper string accompaniment, and Labro showed particularly fast fingers on repeated motives and offbeat rhythms. The melodic ostinato became more ornamented as the piece went on, and the players together were able to cohesively move the music into other colors and shadings.  more

February 9, 2022

By Nancy Plum

Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) began 2022 with a lush “new beginning,” performing music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to open the New Year in an opulent orchestral way. Led by guest conductor Kenneth Bean and featuring guest solo violinist Alexi Kenney, the PSO presented three works which captured the musical atmosphere of the lives and times of each of the composers.

Currently assistant conductor of the PSO, Kenneth Bean has an extensive career leading both adult and youth orchestral ensembles. Bean’s conducting strength throughout the concert was clearly finding dynamic variety, drama, and theatricality in the three pieces performed. The works presented of Coleridge-Taylor, Sibelius, and Dvorak provided ample opportunity for an imaginative approach to orchestral color, and Bean took advantage of every possibility.

Beginning with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s 1898 Ballade in A minor, PSO demonstrated an ability to play from refined to lush and with dynamics ranging from rich and powerful to almost imperceptible. London-born Coleridge-Taylor became well-known as a composer from at an early age, drawing the attention of 19th-century compositional powerhouse Sir Edward Elgar. Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade was premiered through a commission by Elgar, immediately showing the work to be cinematic and attention-getting. Bean and the PSO began the piece in dramatic fashion, with very steady horns coupled with a lean unison string color. Bean allowed the orchestral sound to develop gradually, and the ensemble shifted musical moods well. Equal parts fanfare and simplicity, this one-movement multi-section work was played with characteristic lushness. A duet between clarinetist Andy Cho and bassoonist Brad Balliett showed elegance and precision, with flutist Julietta Curenton and Mary Schmidt adding a fluttering musical icing on the orchestral texture.

Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ 1904 Violin Concerto in D minor fit right into the opulent late 19th-century concerto tradition, but rather than being an equal partnership between orchestra and soloist, this work was clearly for the soloist. Guest violinist Alexi Kenney was well up to the challenge, leaning into melodic lines and demonstrating physical playing. Throughout his career, Kenney has been active as both soloist and commissioner of new works; his most recent recording is accompanied by a “visual album” pairing music with contemporary sculpture.  more

“SCENERY”: Performances are underway for “Scenery.” Presented by Maurer Productions OnStage, and directed by Judi Parrish, the play runs through February 13 at Kelsey Theatre. Above: married, veteran actors Richard Crain (Thom Carroll, left) and Marion Crain (Laurie Hardy) bicker, as an opening night finds them wearily discussing their life in the theater, and as a couple. (Photo by John M. Maurer)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Early in Scenery, veteran actor Marion Crain complains about being given new lines on opening night. Her husband, costar Richard Crain, tartly replies, “They gave us new lines last week; you just didn’t learn them.” Marion retorts, “I was busy learning the old ones.”

This exchange encapsulates the themes and content of Scenery, which is being presented at Kelsey Theatre. Playwright Ed Dixon scripts flippant conversations (which include adult humor and strong language) that achingly probe anxieties about time passing by and leaving us behind — specifically, as we grow older.

In addition to his work as a playwright, Dixon is a seasoned composer and award-winning Broadway and concert performer. His voice is heard on several recordings (including the Kennedy Center premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, conducted by the composer). As such, Dixon’s own career offers him ample material for a play about longtime actors.

The play received its premiere from New York’s Montauk Theatre Company in September 2001 (five months after the Broadway opening of another comedy about theater and its practitioners: The Producers). Five years later, Grand Rapids Press reported that Dixon considers a subsequent production, presented at Saugatuck, Michigan’s Mason Street Warehouse, to be “the world premiere of a substantially rewritten script.” more

January 26, 2022

“OUR TOWN”: Performances are underway for “Our Town.” Presented by Kelsey Theatre and Shakespeare 70, and directed by Jake Burbage and Frank Falisi, the play runs through January 30 at Kelsey Theatre. Above: the Stage Manager (Curt Foxworth, center) and the cast. On ladders are George (Jake Burbage, left) and Emily (Kate Augustin). (Photo courtesy of Jake Burbage)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

On January 22, 1938, Our Town premiered at McCarter Theatre. Thornton Wilder wrote to a friend that the performance, which was “sold out with standees,” was an “undoubted success.” An unimpressed Variety declared that the play would “probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent” — an ironic assessment since Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama later that year.

Eighty-four years later (almost to the day), Our Town is being presented by Shakespeare 70 at Kelsey Theatre. Directed by Jake Burbage and Frank Falisi, this smooth, deft production honors Wilder’s intentions, while subtly giving additional focus and insight to a central character.

In terms of the visual aesthetic, this Our Town generally does not stray from what audiences might expect after seeing photos of past productions. In keeping with Wilder’s request for “no scenery,” Judi Parrish (credited with “props”) furnishes the stage with simple wooden chairs, on which cast members gradually sit before the performance begins.

Although the play is set at the beginning of the 20th century, costume designer Brittany Rivera generally eschews period costumes, letting most of the cast wear casual contemporary outfits. Among the notable exceptions is the good-naturedly pedantic Professor Willard (an exuberant Ray Fallon), whose bright yellow suit matches the character’s personality.

As if to blur the lines between stage and audience, the house lights are not dimmed until the performance has been underway for several minutes. The Stage Manager (Curt Foxworth) delivers the customary pre-performance reminders about emergency exits and silencing electronic devices, then seamlessly goes on-script to give a detailed introduction of the play’s setting. more

December 22, 2021

By Nancy Plum

The musical world may still be celebrating the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, but no composer has stood the test of time better than Johann Sebastian Bach. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has traditionally proven this almost every year in Princeton by presenting a concert of Bach’s joyous 1720 Brandenburg Concertos. The 20-member Chamber Music Society returned to McCarter Theatre Center last week to perform these complex, well-crafted yet accessible works. Thursday night’s performance in McCarter’s Matthews Theatre both dazzled the audience with the players’ technical abilities and created a festive musical mood suitable for the holiday season.  

Bach elevated the Baroque concerto form to new heights with the six works for solo instruments and orchestra compiled and dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg. Each concerto featured a different combination of instruments, and the Chamber Music Society was able to augment the variety by showcasing different musicians in each work. The ensemble grouped Bach’s concertos by orchestration, with the rich instrumental palette of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F Major opening the program. Violinist Daniel Phillips effectively led the ensemble in quick tempi in the opening and closing movements, with oboist Stephen Taylor and bassoonist Marc Goldberg leading the dialogs between the winds and strings. The pair of oboes were well matched in the second movement “adagio,” with the closing dance movements showing graceful dynamic swells among the instruments and especially adroit playing from violinist Arnaud Sussman.

Consistent throughout the six three-movement pieces was a “continuo” ensemble of cello, double bass, and harpsichord. The three cellists of the Chamber Music Society rotated through the concertos, but double bass player Joseph Conyers and harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss unfailingly provided a solid foundation to all six works. Weiss had the opportunity to show the capabilities of the harpsichord in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, in which the harpsichord doubles as continuo and soloist. The Chamber Music Society began this concerto in a fast and light tempo, with the orchestral color augmented by the addition of flutist Ransom Wilson. Although the harpsichord was hard to hear at times when with the rest of the ensemble, Weiss’ fast runs and nimble playing were clear when the instrument was on its own, especially in the first movement cadenza. Wilson provided a subtle icing to the instrumental sound, maintaining a delicate dialog and precise dynamic swells with violinist Sean Lee. more